Hurricane Sally Shows Stormwater Improvements in Pensacola Since 2014 Flood
As Hurricane Sally slowly moved through the Pensacola area on Sept. 16, 2020, bringing an estimated 22-25 inches of rainfall and 6-8 feet storm surge, virtually all of the City of Pensacola’s stormwater systems were tested by the incredible volume of water produced by the tropical event.
Those systems passed the test, thanks to significant stormwater improvements implemented by the City of Pensacola’s Public Works & Facilities Department, particularly since the historic April 2014 flood.
During the major rainfall event in April 2014, 18 major stormwater facilities in the City of Pensacola were overwhelmed and significantly compromised by the 20-plus inches of rainfall. During Hurricane Sally, all 18 of those same stormwater facilities held strong with no integrity issues.
The stormwater systems were able to handle significantly more water due to improved and expanded infrastructure, particularly systems that were built back after the 2014 flood.
The City of Pensacola took advantage of a Federal Emergency Management Agency mitigation program that provided "improved projects" funding not just to rebuild stormwater infrastructure, but to rebuild it stronger and more resilient than it was before.
“They allow you to overdesign and overbuild things to build additional resiliency into the infrastructure, so we took full advantage of that, as we will with this storm event,” Public Works & Facilities Director Derrik Owens said. “In all the cases where we did that, those locations all benefited us…we mitigated all 18 of those sites by overbuilding them, building additional resiliency in them so they would not fail again once we went through a similar event. So that has helped tremendously.”
Since 2014, the city has spent approximately $37 million in infrastructure upgrades in Pensacola’s four basins -- Pensacola Bay, Escambia Bay, Long Hollow and Bayou Chico. Numerous stormwater improvement and flood mitigation projects have been completed throughout the city, including new stormwater ponds, stormwater pond expansions, road culverts, inlets and additional/larger stormwater pipes.
“We’ve had a program going where we’ve been going throughout the city and upsizing stormwater inlets,” Owens said. “I think to date, we’ve upsized over 117 stormwater inlets citywide just to ensure that they’re taking the maximum amount of water off the roadways, because that’s usually the first place it backs up off the right of way and into private property.”
Additional flood mitigation projects in the City of Pensacola include Piedmont, Spanish Trail Pond, Longhollow Pond, Main and Coyle, Wright Street, Baywoods Gully and many others.
Pensacola resident Jeremy Hans said he's seen the positive impact of city stormwater improvement projects firsthand. Hans was living near the intersection of 20th Avenue and Lloyd Street during the April 2014 flood, which was completely washed out by the heavy rainfall.
"During the flooding I got up to drive to work and realized the entire street, the entire intersection was washed away," Hans said. "It didn't take long for the city to come back and rebuild the entire part of the street. After the hurricane, there was no damage, so it's been really great to see that their improvements have worked."
Another program the city has taken advantage of is the Hazard Mitigation Grant Program administered by FEMA, which provides funding for flood mitigation projects in areas with repetitive flooding issues. Two projects that were recently completed through HMGP held up well during Hurricane Sally – the 12th Avenue Stormwater Improvement Project and the Lee Street Stormwater Improvement Project. Both projects included the purchase and demolition of flood-prone residential buildings in order to expand existing stormwater retention ponds to reduce roadway and property flooding in the area during high intensity rainfall events.
The city was also granted approximately $7 million in RESTORE/National Fish and Wildlife Foundation grant funding to complete several stormwater projects, all of which held up exceptionally well during Hurricane Sally. These grant-funded projects included the Bayou Chico R Street at Maggie’s Ditch Stormwater Treatment Enhancement Project, the Bill Gregory Park Regional Stormwater Treatment Project, and the Government Street Regional Stormwater Pond at Corinne Jones Park.
While there is still plenty of room for improvement, Owens said the difference between the 2014 flood and flooding during Hurricane Sally was noticeable. The city is continuing to move forward with flood mitigation projects and look for potential solutions for flooding in low-lying areas of the city such as Main Street, Barrancas Avenue and Aragon in downtown Pensacola.
“We’ve gone from a situation in 2014 we were saying ‘Wow, where do we go from here.’ to now we’re saying ‘Wow, we’re having success,’” Owens said. “And we just need to keep moving forward with that success and doing what we’re doing.”
Mayor Grover Robinson said he was incredibly impressed with how well the city's stormwater facilities held up during Hurricane Sally.
"With the amount of rainfall our area received from Hurricane Sally, it easily could have been another catastrophic flooding event like we experienced in April 2014," Mayor Robinson said. "While we know there are many areas that still saw significant impacts during the hurricane, I was pleased to see that our stormwater improvements paid off and that the city's stormwater facilities held strong despite the incredible amount of rainfall and storm surge produced by Hurricane Sally. We will continue to work throughout the city to make additional flooding mitigation and stormwater improvements moving forward.”